Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Smoke from nearby wildfires settles in the Salt Lake Valley on Thursday, July 5, 2018.

Utahns along the Wasatch Front are fed up with poor air quality. They want real change.

Poor air quality hurts tourism, and it’s hard on our economy. For instance, 68 percent of our tech workers say the top reason they would leave the state is poor air quality. During inversions, our air is not pretty to look at and it tarnishes Utah’s reputation.

But most important, bad air hurts us. According to Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, fine particulate matter, most of which comes from cars and trucks as a product of combustion, is particularly harmful to “children, the elderly, those with …asthma, … cardiovascular diseases or diabetes. (It) poses serious health concerns because it can pass through the nose and throat, lodge deeply in the lungs and pass across the lungs into the cardiovascular system.”

Many conservatives have resisted dealing with air quality because it’s overseen by the controversial Environmental Protection Agency, and the issue has been caught up in the global warming/climate change debate. But when it comes to air quality, Utah citizens don’t care about politics anymore. They want their leaders to help them address this problem. Encouragingly, they also accept responsibility. UCAIR’s 2018 polling found 56 percent of Utahns believe the people rather than government are primarily responsible to clean our air.

Every major city fights the effects of pollution. Utah’s emissions are low compared to similar sized cities. That’s helpful perspective.

And we’re improving. According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, “from 2002 to 2014, Utah’s population increased by 600,000 (26 percent). During that time, total statewide emissions declined by 30 percent — a 46 percent reduction in per-capita emissions.” DAQ also points out that “Utah’s air is cleaner now than at any time since monitoring began in the 1950s, and (is) improving.”

Since 2002, winter weekday emissions have declined from 471 tons per day to 291, nearly a 40 percent reduction, says UCAIR. This reduction is significant and doesn’t receive enough attention.

As proof of that improvement, at UCAIR’s annual fundraising dinner, Executive Director Thom Carter quoted a letter from his grandfather in the 1940s to his new wife telling her he had acquired a building lot on Salt Lake City’s east side “above the smoke zone.” My dad often told me that on winter afternoons when he was a boy in the 1930s, you could see dense haze over Ogden, which came from coal-burning furnaces, wood stoves and unregulated industrial smoke. It’s not a new problem for the Wasatch Front.

Notwithstanding our unique bowl-like geography, Utah’s air quality has improved through stricter laws, industrial emissions reduction, more efficient cars and trucks, smoother transportation flows and UTA mass transit.

Federal mandates have required automakers and fuel refineries to reach stringent emissions goals. The resulting Tier 3 vehicles began selling in 2018. Along with Tier 3 fuels, they will reduce emissions by 80 percent per vehicle when the entire fleet turns over.

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Gary Herbert announced several initiatives.

11 comments on this story
  • The state will facilitate “accountable telework through office hoteling,” meaning some state employees whose work can be done remotely will work in office space near their homes or away from the urban core when air quality is poor.
  • New state buildings will be built to high efficiency standards, and energy cost savings will be deposited into a revolving fund to finance future energy efficient buildings.
  • The state fleet will be replaced by Tier 3 vehicles, starting with cars and trucks which produce the most emissions.
  • The state will build for public use 300 charging stations for electric cars and will incentivize construction of 800 more by private concerns.
  • Cash incentives will be provided to remove 5,000 wood stoves and to replace 25,000 snow blowers, lawn mowers and other dirty small engines for battery-powered machines. When you realize that wood-burning stoves account for as much as 15 percent of PM2.5 emissions on a bad air day, it is essential that they not be used on those days.

Herbert has proposed $100 million in funding for clean air initiatives to the Legislature. Utahns want them to implement these and other good ideas. They want leadership on air quality because it affects their own and their children’s health as well as our economy, tourism and quality of life.